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Past perfect

Do you know how to use phrases like They'd finished the project by March or Had you finished work when I called?

Look at these examples to see how the past perfect is used.

He couldn't make a sandwich because he'd forgotten to buy bread.
The hotel was full, so I was glad that we'd booked in advance.
My new job wasn't exactly what I’d expected.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Grammar B1-B2: Past perfect: 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

Time up to a point in the past

We use the past perfect simple (had + past participle) to talk about time up to a certain point in the past.

She'd published her first poem by the time she was eight. 
We'd finished all the water before we were halfway up the mountain.
Had the parcel arrived when you called yesterday?

Past perfect for the earlier of two past actions

We can use the past perfect to show the order of two past events. The past perfect shows the earlier action and the past simple shows the later action.

When the police arrived, the thief had escaped.

It doesn't matter in which order we say the two events. The following sentence has the same meaning.

The thief had escaped when the police arrived.

Note that if there's only a single event, we don't use the past perfect, even if it happened a long time ago.

The Romans spoke Latin. (NOT The Romans had spoken Latin.)

Past perfect with before

We can also use the past perfect followed by before to show that an action was not done or was incomplete when the past simple action happened.

They left before I'd spoken to them.
Sadly, the author died before he'd finished the series.


We often use the adverbs already (= 'before the specified time'), still (= as previously), just (= 'a very short time before the specified time'), ever (= 'at any time before the specified time') or never (= 'at no time before the specified time') with the past perfect. 

I called his office but he'd already left.
It still hadn't rained at the beginning of May.
I went to visit her when she'd just moved to Berlin.
It was the most beautiful photo I'd ever seen.
Had you ever visited London when you moved there?
I'd never met anyone from California before I met Jim.

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Grammar B1-B2: Past perfect: 2


Language level

Intermediate: B1


Hi Kirk
Sorry for posting in past perfect section but I didn’t know where to post else

When I met Laura she was wearing a red dress.
What’s the difference if we say “ when I was meeting Laura she was wearing a red dress” if this is not correct tense why?

Her English is improving every day.

What’s the difference if we say “ her English improves every day”

Best regards

Hi Tony1980,

The continuous form describes an activity which is ongoing and unfinished at a particular moment, so we commonly use it to show a longer activity which happens around a shorter one. For example:

I was walking in the park when my phone rang.

The phone call is in the middle of (and interrupts) my walk.


In your original example, wearing the red dress is a longer activity and the meeting happens during it. In other words, Laura comes to the meeting already wearing the red dress.

The second version does not seem to fit any context I can think of.


In your second example, is improving emphasises the ongoing current process, while improves suggests something which is generally or permanently true. Since the verb 'improve' implies a process of change there is little difference between the two, but if a different verb were used (one which does not imply change) then the difference would be clearer:

She is enjoying school. [at the moment]

She enjoys school. [generally]



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter M.
Thanks for the your elaborated response it was really helpful

I came across this sentence:
I was teaching Spanish while I was living in Mexico.
What’s the difference if we say:
1)I taught Spanish while I lived in Mexico.
2)I taught Spanish while I was living in Mexico.
3)I was teaching Spanish while I lived in Mexico.
Sorry if Im being too demanding.
Best regards

Hi Andi,

Generally, the continuous form in this kind of context suggests that something is seen as temporary while the simple suggest permanence. However, beyond that I wouldn't comment on the particular examples you provide. The reason is that the choice is dependent on the detailed context and the speaker's perspective. In other words, we would simply be speculating about how the speaker sees the situation and the discussion would devolve into a whole series of maybes: Perhaps he thinks... perhaps he is... and so on.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Team,

I have got two sets of questions.

1. "It was thought to have been serious."

What does this above sentence really mean? "Thought" is a past tense and have been is a "present perfect." How this mingles like this and what does this really mean? (gramatically which tense this sentence has?) and can we make a sentence like this (past tense and present tense mix)?
Could you please help me in this regard.

2. "The love of God that has been showed (or) showed to human since beginning."
Which one to use ? - "has been showed" or just "showed."
I think, "has been showed" would be more appropriate because there is a "since" in it. Am I correct in my thinking?

Thank you,

Hello kingson,

1. There a a number of phrases similar to this which we use to introduce opinions, beliefs, claims and so on:

It was thought to...

It was claimed to...

It was believed to...

The construction is a passive form and you can change the tense:

It is thought to...

It has been thought to...

These phrases are followed by an infinitive form. This could be the bare infinitive for a present meaning:

He was thought to be a member of the Mafia.

Or you can use a perfect infinitive:

He was thought to have been a member of the Mafia for most of his life.

Other forms of the infinitive are also possible: passive infinitives, continuous finitives etc. The form used will depend on the context. 


2. Yes, I think has been is more appropriate here as it describes an unfinished past time.



The LearnEnglish Team


Dear Peter,

You have made me to do a research in the world of "infinitives." They are very useful in learning English vocabulary. Thank you very much for that. I still have a question for you.
"I want to play"
In this above sentence how can we differentiate between the "normal verb" and the infinitive? Is "want" a normal verb? "to play" an infinitive? Could you please enlighten me in this regard.

My next question is...
Can we consider all the present perfect as the unfinished tense in the past time?
Thank you very much for your patience for answering my questions.

Hello again kingson,

In your sentence 'want' is a normal and regular verb which is followed by an infinitive:

I want to play.

[want + to verb]

Some verbs, such as want, are followed by infinitives. Others are followed by gerunds. It's very useful to learn verb patterns such as this. You can read about different verb patterns in the relevant section of our grammmar reference:

You'll see links to specific pages at the bottom of the page.


Perfect describes an aspect rather than a tense. Perfect forms are retrospective, meaning that they look back from one time to another: seeing the past from the perspective of the present, for example, or seeing the past from the perspective of a later past.


The present perfect describes actions and events which exist in an unfinished past time frame as we see them. This last phrase is important: it's how we see the actions and events that is key. The action may be complete, but we see it as unfinished because its results or effects are still relevant. For example:

I went to Spain in 2005.

This is a past event, complete and finished.

I've been to Spain.

This is present in the sense that I'm telling you that I have knowledge or experience in my head now which is in some way relevant: I can give you advice, perhaps, or maybe I'm telling you that I'd prefer to go to another country as I've already been to Spain. The context will make clear why the knowledge is relevant; the present perfect simply tells us that it exists.



The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Team,

"In today's News paper, it was said that the market rate (for the houses) seems to go up."

In this sentence it started with a past tense ( in was said) but the further information in this sentence is in present tense (seems to go up). Can we formulate a sentence like this?
I need a clarification here - "it was said" - is a past reference so the following sentence should also be in past tence (seemed to go). Please enlighten me in this regard.

"I did not know you worked here."

In this above sentence the person (you) actually is currently working there. But due to past reference (I did not know) we need to use the past tense (you worked here). If we use this past tense (you worked here) does not indicate that the person does work there now. So please explain to me how I can understand the English grammar here.
Thank you so much for all your answers to my questions so far.

Hello kingson,

We don't comment on examples from sources we don't know as we have no way of knowing if the source is reliable in terms of language. However, I can comment on the general rule here and say that it is perfectly possible to use a present form after a past reporting verb if the present verb describes something which is still true or has a general time reference.

For example, this sentence is correct:

It was said that male drivers are worse than female drivers.

The words were said in the past (thus 'was said') but the comment itself is not time specific, so a present form is fine.



The LearnEnglish Team